Museums and the Web 2005

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

Enhancing The Heritage Experience

Namir Anani, Director General, Canadian Heritage Information Network, Department of Canadian Heritage, Canada


With the emergence of the knowledge society in today's current environment of information globalization and rapid technological change, enhancing the public's involvement in knowledge discovery and creation is pivotal to enhancing the heritage experience. The changing face of the virtual society, the developments in information and communication technologies and their use suggest that personalization, convenience, and meaningful interactivity through on-line services would help museums further impassion and engage the public in the coming years. Although the global influence of technologies is transforming our economy and society, technology alone does not create knowledge. Technology can only serve to empower people to develop new knowledge. Our approach must therefore place people at the centre of the process. This keynote presentation discusses several environmental trends in the virtual realm and how they might be leveraged to enhance the overall heritage experience.

Keywords: knowledge society, digital heritage, human interaction, sustainability, digital economy, public engagement, and heritage experience


Citizens' knowledge and skills are becoming a barometer for measuring the well-being and health of a society. The public's desire to fully participate in the new knowledge economy is pushing the boundaries of conventional learning and educational services (Scott, 2003). The definition of on-line services is also shifting rapidly towards high-quality, convenient, personalized, and comprehensive interactivity. This is evident in the substantial growth of self-administered services provided by the banking, commerce, communication, and other industries.

The public is also adopting new mobile (Statistics Canada, 2004a) and fixed technologies at an unprecedented rate. Technologies that enable anytime, anywhere services are becoming essential daily tools. While this rapid evolution of technology and services is changing our most common day-to-day activities, this is occurring at the expense of time, which is becoming a scarce commodity, requiring yet further refinements to services in order to entice public usage.

The role of individuals in the virtual realm is also changing from that of passive recipient to that of creator and distributor of content (Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2004). Public membership in e-forums for sharing ideas and cultural commentary is also on the rise and is testimony to the changing dimension of civic participation and self-expression in the digital environment. The 2000 General Social Survey conducted by Statistics Canada (2001) found that 30% of Canadian individuals on the Internet make use of on-line chat services, and just over 15% subscribe to a newsgroup or listserv. The on-line public is evermore in search of knowledge that is pertinent to its current environment. Whether it is for vocational or health reasons, formal education or simply personal enjoyment, the relevance of the information plays a major part in its consumption by the public.

At a primary level, a key task of museums is to transmit knowledge to society. The societal and technological changes highlighted above suggest that nurturing this relationship requires a careful analysis of the services currently offered by museums. As we aim for enhanced on-line participation and public engagement, current developments suggest that personalized, convenient, and interactive on-line services will help museums further impassion and engage the public in the coming years (Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2004).

Museums & the Knowledge Society

Museums play a vital role in the development and well being of society. According to the International Council Of Museums (2001), they provide acquisition, conservation, communication and exhibition services for the education and enjoyment of society. In so doing, museums connect the public with its heritage, and provide opportunities to better understand and rationalize the world we live in.

Museums have so far been successful in participating in the virtual realm by creating rich digital content and contextual information using sophisticated displays, thus educating the public about their original collections.

The new knowledge economy is one driven by human knowledge and intellectual capital, and being shaped in large part by our schools and universities. To participate in the new era, museums have been forging collaborations with educational institutions to provide the public with educational products and tools. This is a thoughtful alliance that partners museums, the custodians of authoritative heritage content, with members of the educational community, who know best the needs of students in the new economy. The view of museum content as authoritative means that museums are well placed to take advantage of this given that trust is an important factor in users' attitudes toward on-line content. According to a recent report by Market & Opinion Research International (MORI) for the Common Information Environment (CIE) group (2005), museums are among the established organizations in which people have a fair amount of trust.

The challenges to delivering educational products in the virtual realm, however, remain significant. Issues of technological know-how, standards, copyright, and intellectual property are constant preoccupations.

The emergence of the knowledge society and the knowledge economy signifies a new era requiring a fresh perspective on the way heritage education is provided. The public's ability to interact, research, share, and discuss information has changed dramatically in the last two decades. The public consumption and exchange of information using non-formal educational settings is also greatly altering the equation of knowledge acquisition and creation in society. The public is increasingly relying on non-formal settings to complement its learning objectives. Its use of e-forums, e-tutorials, and interactive, personalized learning environments to share and rapidly acquire relevant information that meets its needs is becoming ever more popular.

Knowledge is a product of discovery built mainly upon a reasoned assimilation of information complemented by interpretation, dialogue, debate, and rationalization. The ability of heritage institutions to create on-line environments in which the public can interact with museums and others will therefore go a long way to advancing heritage knowledge.

To this end, CHIN has been working with Industry Canada's Communications Research Center and the National Research Council examining ways in which next generation video-conferencing (i.e., broadband, real-time, multi-point) can facilitate public (in this case, classroom) interaction with museum experts.  This work is on-going and additional research into best practices for providing direct access to museum experts will be pursued in the coming year through a partnership with the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC).

Trends & Drivers

Technology Adoption

The public use of new communication technologies, especially mobile, is increasing quickly. Digital literacy is becoming a widely accepted demographic measure in many countries. In Canada, it is estimated that 71% of the public has access to the Internet, and this number is growing at an unparalleled rate. A combination of the fall in price of broadband connections, coupled with the high rate of adoption of new communication technologies, including data, voice and video streaming, are creating unprecedented opportunities for memory institutions to develop and offer knowledge services.

The use of technologies that enable on-line services is also on the rise. Tools offering data, voice, and video communication are becoming must-haves for business, and increasingly for the public at large. But learning new technologies comes at a cost of time and effort, and as such, the main driver behind the public's adoption of technology is not likely the simple facilitation of daily activity. Considering the trends, it is more likely that the drivers behind the rapid adoption of technology are things such as:

  • the flexibility and convenience to conduct business outside normal working hours;
  • the ability to research and acquire knowledge outside formal educational settings;
  • the capacity to reach and communicate with larger audiences, bridging geographical and cultural boundaries and time zones; and,
  • the abilty to create content, share data, and express oneself in a virtual society that knows few social boundaries.

Another important driver for technology adoption in the knowledge economy is the keep-up factor. As technology evolves offering new opportunities for us to reach for, research and learn, so does the desire to adopt new ways of maintaining relevance in a society that is redefining itself on a daily basis.

On-line Services

That the use of flexible and convenient on-line services is becoming more prevalent is evident in the substantial growth of on-line, self-serve options provided by the banking, government, commerce, music, communication, and other industries. Additionally, on-line services encompassing search engines, chat functions, instant messaging, call center integration, and personalization utilities, are becoming more widespread and finding growing uses in both B2B and B2C industries. The main features governing such services are convenience, interactivity and personalization responding to specific needs.

It is no wonder that a recent finding by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (2004) indicates that using search engines ranks as one of the most popular on-line activities. The same is true in Canada: searching is the third most popular use of the Internet after email and browsing (Statistics Canada, 2004b). Additionally, it was highlighted that the search engine feature ranked highest by the American public was the ability to return results tailored to specific search needs, in comparison to other features such as speed and privacy. This is a good indication of the public preference for tools and services that respond to specific rather than generic needs.

The public's expectations of service providers in the virtual realm are changing radically. Where the public at one time more or less accepted whatever on-line services were available, it is now demanding personalized services to meet individual needs. The popularity of personalization is seeing successes in many industries and stems from the fact that the public finds it more convenient to maintain control of its interaction with the service provider.

Other key features of these on-line services are the following:

  • customization, including the client's ability to change the way services are viewed from a Web browser and what level of interaction with the service is permitted;
  • client relationship management that provides additional, optional services to complement the basic services offered;
  • two-way interactivity and immediate on-line assistance with client queries; and,
  • intelligent technology that continuously learns about individual habits and preferences and continually repurposes services to meet the changing needs of the public.

This movement toward services on-demand is a reflection of the virtual society and its preferred interactions with various businesses. More than ever before, on-line consumers are dictating when, where, and how they will interact with a service offering. In the process, clear trends are emerging showing that personalization and convenience will increase customer loyalty and help ensure sustainable public engagement.

Public Participation On-line

The public's role on-line is changing from that of passive recipient to that of creator and distributor of content. Studies indicate that a large majority of Web users have been creating, in the form of personal or family Web sites and diaries, their own material for publication on the Internet, in this way contributing to the growing amount of available on-line content. This is also supported by the recent popularity of "blogs," which have developed into a means of content creation, sharing and cultural expression. This new trend, although not yet widely adopted by a high percentage of Internet users, is another indication of the changing dimension of civic participation and self-expression in the digital environment.

The on-line public searching for and participating in knowledge and learning opportunities is very diversified. However, several studies suggest that on-line knowledge seekers typically fall into the following four categories based on their knowledge needs:

  • Lifelong learners search for answers to specific questions for the purposes of general knowledge and enrichment.
  • Discovery learners search not necessarily for answers to specific questions, but for the purposes of general knowledge and enjoyment.
  • Formal learners access formal learning settings and create knowledge for formal educational purposes.
  • Professional learners access information to create knowledge pertinent to their careers and working environments (in the heritage domain, this translates to researchers, curators, historians, others).

This is also supported by CHIN-commissioned research (Orange Kiwi, 2003) and user feedback analysis that found that the on-line behaviour of visitors to the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC) is driven by specific needs, from students completing homework assignments to professionals researching health issues like diabetes or osteoporosis (Statistics Canada, 2004b). Additionally, that there is a large representation of visitors from educational institutions signifies an opportunity going forward for better meeting the needs of formal learners.

In the redesign of the VMC, which is underway, CHIN's Portals Management and Design team is examining the creation of "interest-based" views thereby allowing visitors to input relevant information about their needs to personalize the VMC interface to suit their specific needs, which could, and likely would, change from visit to visit.

On-line Learning

The speed with which information and communication technologies are growing, combined with the changing needs of the on-line public, is creating numerous opportunities for developing new standards of quality in educational services.

As mentioned, personalization and convenience are becoming prerequisites to the public's interaction with on-line services. Accordingly, personalized learning is becoming a widely accepted educational model of the future. The main advantage of this model is its support for learning that is unrestricted by time, place or other barriers, and tailored to learners' continuously changing requirements.

The emergence of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) model is clearly offering viable solutions to personalized learning. The foundation of these VLEs is being built on the strengths of individual Learning Objects (LOs) that can be coupled and decoupled in a variety of ways to enable knowledge creation. Although much has been published on the subject of LOs, issues of standards and common definitions, technological know-how, and funding models, for example, are currently a subject of much debate. It is evident that to successfully enable the VLE model, many catalysts need to be in place. These are, to name a few,

  • harmonized and widely accepted standards;
  • closer collaboration between museums (the owners of digital content) and the educational community knowledgeable in the creation of course content;
  • economically sound business models to enable and sustain the development of LOs, as funding is a major preoccupation;
  • procedures for authenticating and preserving LOs; and,
  • a life cycle management process for configuring and continually updating LOs.

It remains to be seen, however, whether LOs will be a transitional answer or the end solution to building learning environments. Perhaps future advancements in cognitive search tools and search engines will provide another avenue for assembling knowledge objects directly from raw data.

From Content to Services

Current changes in personalized learning and knowledge creation in the virtual realm call for a careful analysis of the needs and supporting tools necessary to further engage the public in heritage knowledge and fulfill this demand at a much larger, holistic scale than ever before. To date the museums' offering on the World Wide Web can be summarize in three progressive stages:

  • first generation of content on the Web that involved posting of electronic versions of paper literature, through which limited personalization or interaction with either content or human expertise was possible. These documents were largely produced for teachers by museum education specialists. An excellent example of a first-generation virtual complementary visit is the pre-visit manual prepared by Fort William Historical Park (2004);
  • the second generation involved a more engaging multimedia content (voice, video and data) that immersed the audience in the intended environment;
  • the third generation offered anew, more sophisticated level of interactivity and personalization, by allowing the user to create personalized spaces and restructure or add content, in addition to interactivity that allows the user to navigate and explore the content based on preferences.

In order to further advance the knowledge discovery it is important that elements of dialogue, debate and rationalization are introduced in the process. This would require a shift from interactivity with content to offering on-line services supported by human interactions (citizens to citizens, and citizens with the museums). Services that would build engaging relationships between the public and the museums and further increase public interest in the institution's original objects, such services may include:

  • pre-visit experiences that would include e-tutorials moderated by expert knowledge (museum professionals), and that provide interactive simulations and presentations to increase public interest in and preparation for knowledge discovery surrounding a particular exhibit or museum. In a 2001 survey, conducted by the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, of visitors to a multi-institutional art and culture Web site, respondents identified the pre-visit experience as the second most important aspect of their visit. The pre-visit was identified by 35% of on-line visitors as being the most important aspect of their visit, second only to accessing museum content, which 46% of visitors identified as the single most important aspect of their visit (Vergo et al., 2001);
  • post-visit experiences that would include on-line discussion forums to provide opportunities for the exchange and interpretation of knowledge acquired at an exhibit or museum (citizens to citizens, and citizens with heritage professionals), and that further engage the public in other heritage content or institutions;
  • virtual learning environments for sharing research and engaging teachers and students in further advancing heritage knowledge; and,
  • interactive e-workshops for professionals and the public.

To participate successfully in the provision of on-line services, the latter needs to be efficient, effective, and just in time. They must provide the public with flexible and context-sensitive access anytime and anywhere to interactive expert knowledge, learning materials and other services. This must also be done in a personalized way that meets individuals' specific needs and interests.

If implemented properly, on-line services can provide the public at large with a dynamic, engaging environment, and raise individuals' desire to return to the original collections and experience the heritage objects face to face. Additionally, as people interact with such services, their feedback, combined with on-line tracking and metrics, will allow museums to better respond to the evolving needs of the public and make better use of the virtual medium to provide experiences not possible in the physical world.


We are clearly embarking on a new era of knowledge creation and attainment that favours personalized learning, convenience, and meaningful interactivity that enables dialogue, debate, and rationalization. This requires a shift from interactivity with content to offering on-line services supported by human interactions (citizens with citizens, and citizens with museum professionals).

The rapid evolution of enabling technologies, coupled with the fast rate of adoption by the public, is creating new avenues for heritage knowledge advancement and public engagement. Although the global influence of these technologies is transforming our economy and society, technology does not create knowledge. Technology can only serve to empower people to develop new knowledge based on their needs and preferences. Our approach must therefore place people at the centre of the process.

A closer look at the conventional services offered by museums and how they can be presented to and accessed differently by the public will help further amplify their role in the knowledge society. This will entail a holistic undertaking that may involve pre-visit experiences that would lead to the original objects, complemented by post-visit on-line experiences, contributing to sustainable heritage discovery.

Museums have a noble role in society to promote cultural expression and heritage knowledge, as these are essential ingredients to increasing interactions between people, having them commit to each other in building healthy communities, and weaving a stronger social fabric. The ability for museums to rapidly embrace current trends and amplify their role in the emerging knowledge and services on-demand society is crucial in meeting their mandate to provide society with a mirror of its creativity, past and present, and through that mirror, an opportunity to imagine and shape the future.


Canadian Heritage Information Network (2004). Virtual Museum (of Canada): The Next Generation. Consulted February 25, 2005.

Common Information Environment group (2005). Understanding the Audience. Consulted February 25, 2005.

Fort William Historical Park (2004). Overnight Voyageur Program Pre-Visit Manual. Consulted February 25, 2005.

International Council of Museums (2001), ICOM Statutes, Article 2 – Definitions. Consulted February 25, 2005.

Vergo et al. (2001). Vergo, J., C.-M. Karat, J. Karat, R.A. Pinhanez, T. Cofino, D. Riecken and M. Podlaseck. "Less Clicking, More Watching": "Results from the User-Centered Design of a Multi-Institutional Web Site for Art and Culture". in D. Bearman and J. Trant (eds.). Museums and the Web 2001: Proceedings. Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics. Consulted February 25, 2005.

Orange Kiwi (Musée Média) (2003). Recherche et analyse statistique du comportement de visite sur le site portail du Musée virtuel du Canada. Phase I : Comparaison entre deux groupes de journées témoins. Unpublished research commissioned by the Canadian Heritage Information Network.

Pew Internet & American Life Project (2004). Data Memo on Search Engines. Consulted January 18, 2005.

Scott, Peter (2003), Lifelong Learning in the Knowledge Society: Threats and Opportunities. In FACE 2003 Conference Report Back, 22, Autumn/Winter 2003. Consulted February 5, 2005.

Statistics Canada (2004a). The Daily, Thursday, February 3, 2005. Telecommunications statistics. Consulted February 25, 2005.

Statistics Canada (2004b). Household Internet Use Survey – Microdata User's Guide, 2003. Consulted February 25, 2005.

Statistics Canada (2001). Changing our ways: Why and how Canadians use the Internet. Consulted February 25, 2005.

Cite as:

Anani, N., Enhancing The Heritage Experience, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at